Other Nations: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, January 9, 2022 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne. The lectionary texts cited are Psalm 29 and Luke 3:15-17, 21-22.

Last summer I was browsing in a used bookstore, as I tend to do, and I came across a copy of The Outermost House, written in 1928 by the author and naturalist Henry Beston. It is considered a classic in the genre of nature writing, and although I’d never heard of it before, I was quickly drawn into the author’s vivid, poetic reflections that capture a year he spent alone in a small cottage on a lonely, windswept beach at the edge of Cape Cod in Massachusetts. 

His only companions are the fog-enshrouded beacon of a distant lighthouse, the layers of sound made by the undulation of the waves, and the wild wind of midwinter storms—and all of these he observes with a sense of reverent wonder. But more than anything, he notices and celebrates the wildlife along the shore, especially the birds who pause there in the midst of their migratory patterns, hunting for food, resting on the long journey north or south, attending to their own mysterious rhythms of existence. I am not an especially devoted birdwatcher, but even I was moved by his description of what he calls the “constellations” of shorebirds flying in perfect, intuitive unison above the sea:

He writes: “We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals…for the animal shall not be measured by man…they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.”

They are other nations. I love that line. In the magnificent otherness of the birds, Beston realizes that we cannot always interpret everything in the world as simply an extension of ourselves. Some things are foreign to us, unknowable, inhabiting their own truth, inaccessible, and yet still beautiful, still worthy in their own right.

I find a sense of restfulness in that observation. The restfulness of not needing to understand something or someone fully in order to love them. The restfulness of letting them be what they are without trying to control them or shape them into our own likeness.

How much more peaceful my own life might have been, at several junctures, if I had done this. If I had let others—friends, family, partners—be who or what they were, rather than trying to fashion them into what I expected or demanded them to be. And how peaceful it might have been to let myself be what I was, rather than conform to what others expected or demanded of me. How good it is to fully inhabit the mystery of our deepest selves, and to honor that mystery in others.

I was reminded of all this—of birds and freedom and flight and identity—as I reflected this week on the image of the Holy Spirit, who comes like a dove, descending upon Jesus at his baptism. 

This aspect of the scene is a bit enigmatic, when you think about it, but I suspect that when we hear this passage, we tend to focus more on the figure of Jesus in the water, or even on the reassuring voice of the Father from heaven, so much so that we might overlook the descent of the dove, who is, lest we forget, also God. 

Our gaze might easily sweep right past her; we might not stop to wonder where she has come from, this dove, where she is going, or what it means that she chooses to anoint this moment with her arrival, with a brush of her wings, carried on the breeze blowing down from the open gates of heaven. What is her part in this revelatory moment? A specific answer is not given to us. The dove who is God remains just beyond our grasp, just beyond our comprehension.

And if we don’t know quite what to do with the dove in this story, I would also say, too, that we often don’t know what to do with the Holy Spirit at all. The Spirit is unpredictable, elusive, wholly other—wing and wind and flame. Jesus, we can see, we can listen to, we can follow. And the Father we can imagine, at least to some degree, because we know what it is to have or to be a parent. 

But the descending dove—she is not like us. Her experiences, her senses, her scope of vision are beyond ours. She is the person of God that cannot be domesticated or contained. She is free. She is another nation, sovereign and unassailed. She arrives and departs and shapes events on her own inscrutable terms.

And while that can be a bit unsettling, I also love that about the Holy Spirit. The Spirit teaches us not to be afraid of the things we don’t know, the things that we cannot know. She reminds us that sometimes we have to let go of controlling outcomes in our life—for we cannot harness the wind. She humbles us. 

So whether we are considering the baptism of our Lord, or our own baptism, or any other aspect of our faith, it is good to remember and celebrate this wild, strange, impregnable aspect of God’s activity in our midst. For as much as we long for intimacy with our Creator, and as much as we seek to know and be known by our Savior, I think we also desperately need to be surprised by God. 

We need a God, perhaps now more so than ever, who can do a new and unexpected thing in our lives. We need a God who is not bound by the limits of human imagination, who is not subject to the old, tired tyrannies, not governed by the mistakes of our past, a God who can, as the Psalmist says, split the flames of fire and shake the wilderness—in other words, a God who can dazzle us, wake us up, surpass the timid longings of the earth, and teach us how to fly. 

It is true that our salvation is found in a God who loves us enough to become as one of us, but our liberation requires a God who is not like us. A God who is another nation, who conquers us with grace.  Because only in the power of God’s strange and insistent newness can we dream of a newer world. Only under her wing can we be carried there.

Where is that wild Spirit of God calling you? Which expectations or disappointments must you lay down to let God’s freedom be your own? To what great mystery are you willing to entrust your heart as you navigate “the splendor and travail of the earth?”

For we must learn to trust in the things we do not fully understand. That is the essence of faith. And that is the essence of God’s love—a nation unto itself, but now descending, softly, on the wings of the dove, to anoint you with uncompromising authenticity. 

Stand on the shore, at the edge of comprehension, and marvel at her arrival, at all that she is, all that she brings, this bearer of God’s deep, inexpressible, freely given self. Let everything be possible again.

How much more peaceful it might be when we do.

No Paradise: HBO’s “The White Lotus” and the Limits of Natural Theology

This reflection does not contain specific plot spoilers for the HBO seriesThe White Lotus” but it does refer to the overall trajectory of the storyline.

If you are looking for the key question that underlies HBO’s limited series The White Lotus, you will find it in episode 4, during a dinner conversation among the wealthy white Mossbacher family and their daughter’s BIPOC friend, Paula. In the midst of a terse intergenerational argument over race, class, and social change, the normally quiet teenage son Quinn erupts in frustration:

What does it matter what we think? If we think the right things or the wrong things, we all do the same shit. We’re all still parasites on the earth. There’s no virtuous person when we’re all eating less fish and throwing all our plastic crap in the ocean. Like a billion animals died in Australia during the fire. A billion. Where does all the pain go?”

Where does all the pain go, indeed? Who pays the price for widespread abuse and destruction, be it climate change, systemic social injustices or otherwise? 

Although it looks and sounds like a straightforward TV series centering intertwined human dramas, it is the tension between ethics and ecology that is, in truth, the force propelling the stories of the indolent guests at The White Lotus resort. Certain questions linger and prod at us throughout the series: can we (especially we white, economically-privileged westerners) insulate ourselves from the raw forces of nature, including the self-destructiveness of our own predatory instincts? Will nature eventually humble us into a greater sense of mutuality and interconnectedness with our neighbor and our planet?

For The White Lotus, at least, the answer is yes to the first question and no to the second.  Without giving away any specific plot points, it is safe to say that there is no dramatic comeuppance for the hotel guests. They emerge from their vacations largely unscathed, still ensconced in their entitlement, while those who serve them or tread in their wake are left to bear the brunt of the tragedy that ensues.

This can feel a bit disappointing, especially if you were hoping for the emotional gratification of seeing some problematic people get their just deserts. The sinister, sickly-golden artifice of the resort, which at the outset of the series hints at the possibility of some moral reckoning lurking among the hibiscus flowers (like a modern-day Fantasy Island) gives way to an even more sinister truth at the end: there is no reckoning, at least not for those at the top of the food chain. The world, the show seems to admit, continues to reward the dominant and chew up the vulnerable. There is no moral arc intrinsic to the natural order of creation. 

A bleak takeaway for an intelligent and entertaining TV series, perhaps. However, there is much here to consider through the lens of Christian faith—especially for those of us who operate in generally progressive Christian circles or who frequently emphasize the inherent goodness of creation. Here’s why.

If you or anyone you know has ever said something like, “I sense God’s presence most clearly in nature,” you have participated to some degree in what is called natural theology, which explores “what can be known of God through the natural world without any divine guidance or revelation” (McGrath, Christian Theology, 141.) When we behold the beauty of a sunset or marvel at the intricacy of an ecological system and then consider how those things might reveal something of their Creator, we are, in that moment, natural theologians. In our wonder we echo the words of the Psalmist who cries out that “the heavens declare the glory of God; the heavens proclaim the work of God’s hands” (Psalm 19:1). 

This can be a sacred and life-giving pursuit. Natural theology is a deeply important approach, especially because in an age of overly-spiritualized Christianity it emphasizes the goodness and the preciousness of the created world and our responsibility to it. For if nature bears some imprint of God’s own majesty, then presumably we are called to honor it and care for it, just as we do for our neighbor whose own face reveals to us the face of Christ. In the era of destructive climate change, this perspective is more urgent than ever. 

But natural theology has its limits, and we must be mindful of acknowledging them. For as much as we celebrate in the Christian faith that God created the earth and called it good (see:Genesis) this ought not send us into a mawkish romanticism that sees nature simply as a benign object of admiration. For example, it is unarguably lovely to imagine God revealed in a sunset or a rainbow, but far more troubling to consider God as exercising Divine prerogative in an earthquake or a hurricane. And although the record of Scriputure does both, it is far too easy to reject the latter while blithely retaining the former. God becomes the object of our pleasure rather than our awe, and God then suspiciously begins to look a lot like us, as malleable as the landscape we exploit.

And while they do not seem to profess any particular faith, this is, in fact, what the characters of The White Lotus are prone to do in their Hawaiian pseudo-paradise. They are natural theologians in extremis. They admire the waves and the flowers and the hula dancers as scenery while carefully ignoring their own complicity in the subjugation of the land and the people in whose midst they are traveling. Nature is beautiful and largely banal to them because, as those residing at the top of the ecosystem, they can afford to ignore the ugly, brutal stuff. But others (the hotel workers and those in more precarious social circumstances) cannot help but notice that stuff because they are the ones left to clean it up, both literally and figuratively.

Natural theology, unmitigated, can result in a subtle sort of idolatry in which the world as it is is interpreted as an end in itself. Our reverence for creation risks turning into reverence for ourselves with creation as a soothing backdrop, which might sound like a harmless form of self-empowerment until you see it at work among those who hold all of the power and who claim that this is both natural and divinely sanctioned (see: white supremacy.) At the risk of gross understatement, we’ve seen too much of this, and there must be a corrective.

Thankfully, there is. A central aspect of our faith, which can get lost in our contemporary enthusiasm for natural theologies, is that Christianity is revealed—that is, God’s activity and self-disclosure in Christ are outside of the natural order. This activity is characterized by intervention, by miraculousness, and what might be called a loving antagonism against the established natural and social order of the world. 

Because if we, like the creators of The White Lotus, observe that nature is inherently amoral in its ordering, such that “there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous.” (Ecclesiastes 8:14), then God has provided a revolutionary new thing (Isaiah 43:19) in the Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection of Jesus. This new thing  is categorically unnatural, because it overturns the tendencies of death and domination that pervade nature as we know it. 

And in its unnatural character, God’s work in Christ liberates us from the expected outcomes. It is a promise that those who feast and laugh (and, ahem, take expensive and exploitative beach vacations) at the expense of others must eventually be accountable for their share of the world’s suffering.  

Divine judgment, which tends to make us progressive Christians squirm, is actually a promise that the brutality of nature is not the end of the story. Hence Mary’s jubilant song: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:52-53). 

This is the moral outcome which is utterly lacking in The White Lotus, but our dismay about that absence is actually a sign of encouragement. For if nature itself (and the society we have built upon its back) is largely indifferent to our basest impulses, then from whence comes our longing for justice and our capacity for selflessness? How can we imagine pure benevolence when we have no direct experience of it in the world around us? That these questions are inherently “unnatural” and unsupported by prevailing evidence suggests that there is more going on in God’s universe than what we can readily perceive.

This is our hope: that the answers to these questions transcend the limits of natural theology and invite us into something more vast than the largest ocean and more beautiful than the most perfect sunset—something made known to us not by human wisdom or striving, but only in the revelation we receive as followers of Christ. While Jesus does not deny that domination and death will still shape our experience of life and discipleship (see: Calvary), he also promises through his conquering of death that yes, there is place where all the pain goes. It goes to a place where it is held and transformed and redeemed by Love itself. We usually call it the Kingdom of God. It is a realm where we are are not just on vacation, but where we—and all of creation—can finally experience what the hapless travelers at The White Lotus never actually find: true peace.